One of the things that has long intrigued me is how people of different political and ideological attitudes can look at the same set of facts and interpret them in entirely different ways.
For example, it’s no secret to readers of this site that I’m a conservative who views a whole range of issues–the size and reach of government, taxes, entitlement programs, education, immigration, health care, abortion, America’s role in world affairs, and so forth–in a particular way. One of my long-time friends, a man who has played a significant role in my Christian faith, is a liberal who disagrees with me on virtually everything having to do with politics. He’s smart, informed, and has integrity. We’ve had good, rich conversations over the years. Yet there’s very little common political ground we share.
We simply look at the same issues, the same events, in a fundamentally different way.
I thought about my friend while reading Jesse Norman’s outstanding biography Edmund Burke: The First Conservative. In the second half of the book, devoted to Burke’s political philosophy, Norman invokes the Muller-Lyer illusion, a benchmark of human visual perception in which two lines of the same length appear to be of different lengths, based on whether the fins of an arrow are facing inward or outward.
According to a recent Pew Research Center study, only 26 percent of those surveyed say they can trust government always or most of the time, while 73 percent say they can trust the government only some of the time or never. “Majorities across all partisan and demographic groups express little or no trust in government,” according to the study.
It’s clear that the Obama years, rather than deepening public confidence in government, has had the opposite effect. A president who has almost limitless faith in government is having a corrosive effect on its reputation. To some of us this is not an irony but an inevitability.
In this environment, conservatives can offer several arguments, the most obvious of which is this: Right now the federal government is doing far more than it should, doing very little of it well, and doing outright harm in far too many circumstances.
Shortly before the election, former Governor Mike Huckabee narrated an ad urging Americans to vote according to conservative biblical principles.
“Your vote will affect the future and be recorded in eternity,” he says in a Value Voters USA ad. “Will you vote the values that will stand the test of fire?” Governor Huckabee goes on to pinpoint the issues that will be recorded in eternity.
“Many issues are at stake, but some issues are not negotiable,” Huckabee says. “The right to life from conception to natural death. Marriage should be reinforced, not redefined. It is an egregious violation of our cherished principle of religious liberty for the government to force the church to buy the kind of insurance that leads to the taking of innocent human life.”
This ad sparked some lively discussion, including in this interview with Jon Stewart.
Now I’m quite sympathetic to those who believe religious faith has a place in the public square. But I find the ad Governor Huckabee appeared in to be problematic, perhaps because I tend to be wary of those who claim we know which votes will have eternal significance and, in the process, can provide us with the hierarchy of God’s concerns.
According to a story in the Associated Press, “the ranks of America’s poor are on track to climb to levels unseen in nearly half a century.” The story goes on to say that poverty, which is closely tied to joblessness, “is spreading at record levels across many groups.” (The most recent poverty rates are from 2010; Census figures for 2011 will be released this fall.)
According to demographers:
- Poverty will remain above the pre-recession level of 12.5 percent for many more years. Several predicted that peak poverty levels — 15 percent to 16 percent — will last at least until 2014.
- Suburban poverty, already at a record level of 11.8 percent, will increase again in 2011.
- Part-time or underemployed workers, who saw a record 15 percent poverty in 2010, will rise to a new high.
- Child poverty will increase from its 22 percent level in 2010.
As the election nears — it is now less than 100 days away — the issue of poverty in America will hopefully play a somewhat more central role. It’s perfectly appropriate for candidates of both parties, and at all levels, to focus on the plight of the middle class. But while the effects of the Great Recession, combined with the worst recovery on record, have taken their toll on every strata in American society, it is the poor who suffer disproportionately. (I understand that the definition of poor is subjective and that what qualifies as poor in America qualifies as extravagant wealth in, say, parts of Africa.)
On the massacre that occurred in Aurora, Colorado, earlier this morning, the most obvious thing to say is that the lives of the families and friends of those who were killed and wounded have been altered in an awful, nightmarish direction.
We all know evil exists, that life is fragile, and that people die. But the suddenness and scale of an event like this, in a country like this, is what shocks our system. And for all the efforts by the greatest theological minds in history to explain theodicy, nothing I have ever read or heard addresses it in a satisfactory manner. The “problem of pain” is something that some people might be able to wrestle to the ground when the issue is abstract. But when pain pierces our lives in ways we could never imagine, the neat, tidy explanations – that tragedy is the consequence of the fall of man, that God allows human beings to choose evil, and all the rest – often wash away like sandcastles on the edge of the ocean.
It isn’t that these explanations are necessarily wrong. It’s that they offer very little comfort to those besieged by sorrow. Because what we learn in time is that (to paraphrase the writer Chad Walsh) grief is the price of knowledge – not the knowledge of the mind but of the heart. It is the knowledge of friendship, of affection, of love. Those who live in the shadow of people’s love eventually live in the shadow of grief. Understanding this basic fact of life doesn’t make it any easier to endure. Bereavement can fracture even the sturdiest foundations of our lives.
Earlier this week, I spoke to a group of young professionals, most of whom are conservative. And one of the conversations I had was with a person who was asking me about the link between culture and politics, arguing—as others I know have—that culture is “upstream,” and therefore in many respects more important, than politics.
This question reminded me of a passage from the late Alexander Bickel’s book The Morality of Consent, which deals in part with the competing traditions of Locke-Rousseau and Edmund Burke in Western thought and in American constitutionalism and political process:
The unexamined life, said Socrates, is not worth living. Nor is it bearable. To acknowledge no values at all is to deny a difference between ourselves and other particles that tumble in space. The irreducible value, though not the exclusive one, is the idea of law. Law is more than just another opinion; not because it embodies all right values, or because the values it does embody tend from time to time to reflect those of a majority or plurality, but because it is the value of values. Law is the principal institution through which a society can assert its values.
In her 1965 New York Review of Books essay on the 19th century British businessman, essayist, and journalist Walter Bagehot (which can be found in this collection), the eminent historian Gertrude Himmelfarb wrote this:
The current intellectual fashions put a premium on simplicity and activism. The subtleties, complications, and ambiguities that until recently have been the mark of serious thought are now taken to signify a failure of nerve, a compromise with evil, an evasion of judgment and “commitment.” It is as if the “once-born” (to use the terms invented by Francis Newman and immortalized by William James) were reasserting themselves over the “twice-born”: the once-born, simple and “healthy-minded,” having faith in a beneficent God and a perfectible universe; the twice-born in awe of His mystery, impressed by the recalcitrance of men and the anomalies of social action.
Bagehot, who became editor of The Economist, possessed what Himmelfarb called a “compelling vision that inevitably brought with it a complexity, subtlety, and depth that he found lacking in much of the discourse of the time.” As it was then, so it remains today.
“You know, it’s fashionable right now for people to be cynical,” President Obama said during a campaign speech the other day.
We go in cycles like this and right now a lot of people are saying “Oh, America is doing terribly” and “What are we going to do?” Let me tell you something. There is no problem out there, no challenge we face that we do not have the capacity to solve. We are Americans and we are tougher than whatever tough times bring us. What is lacking right now is our politics, what’s lacking right now is that some of the worst impulses in our politics have been rewarded.
William McGurn of the Wall Street Journal and George Weigel, my colleague at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, have intelligent columns (here and here) about Representative Paul Ryan’s address at Georgetown University last week. There are two elements to the speech worth drawing attention to.
The first is a commendable modesty in Ryan’s remarks. While Ryan, a committed Catholic, provided a robust defense of his budget, he readily admits there is plenty of room for differences over the prudential application of Christian principles to matters of public policy. Too often people on both the left and the right insist the New Testament and Hebrew Bible provide a governing blueprint. In fact, they say virtually nothing about what we would consider public policy. They simply do not offer detailed guidance on (to name just a handful of issues) trade; education; welfare, crime; health care; affirmative action, immigration; foreign aid; legal reform; climate change; and much else. And even on issues that many people believe the Bible does speak to, if sometimes indirectly – including poverty and wealth, abortion and same-sex marriage, capital punishment and euthanasia – nothing in the text speaks to the nature or extent of legislation or the kind of prudential steps that ought to be pursued.
The recent political history of New York City would suggest that Bill Thompson, the former city comptroller, should be in pole position heading into the 2013 mayoral election. That’s because when Thompson challenged current Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2009 he went into the election the longest of long shots and managed to come within five points of the mayor, who also happens to be a billionaire and global brand.
That the election turned out to have been winnable for the unknown Democrat left the national Democratic Party–which completely ignored its nominee–furiously shifting the blame. Anthony Weiner (remember him?), who considered running against Bloomberg that year, suggested one of President Obama’s futile trips out to New Jersey to help the sinking political fortunes of Jon Corzine might have been better spent helping Thompson. “Maybe,” the White House viciously shot back, “Anthony Weiner should have manned-up and run against Michael Bloomberg.”
Wonder how the left was able to mobilize so quickly on the Rush Limbaugh boycott? According to the architect behind it, Media Matters online strategy director Angelo Carusone, the project was actually created in 2009, but stayed inactive until the Sandra Fluke controversy boiled over (via Legal Insurrection):
I started Stop Rush in 2009, 2010, and when I went to register the domain, I saw that Rush owned StopRush.com….
The Beck work was working, and I kind of froze the Rush work, and experimented with it a little, to get a sense of who Rush’s advertisers were and what their comfort level with him was. It was definitely valuable, and I am glad I spent some time doing it. It has informed the work I am doing now.
The last few weeks haven’t been banner ones for political discourse in America. Representative Maxine Waters recently referred to Representatives John Boehner and Eric Cantor as “demons.” Slate’s Matt Yglesias, upon learning of the death of Andrew Breitbart, tweeted, “Conventions around dead people are ridiculous. The world outlook is slightly improved with @AndrewBrietbart dead.” Matt Taibbi, who blogs for Rolling Stone, wrote, “Good! I couldn’t be happier that he’s dead.” (That’s the least offensive part of what Taibbi wrote). New York magazine’s John Heilemann, co-author of Game Change and an MSNBC contributor, picked up on the spirit of things when on HBO’s “Real Time” he said, “This phrase, that people often say that we should not speak ill of the dead, right? I mean, when is a better time to speak ill of someone than when they’re dead?” This led to a fairly extraordinary moment, when Bill Maher (!), James Carville, and the astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson had to explain to Heilemann that, among other things, there are the sensibilities of a grieving wife and four young children to take into account.
On the other side of the philosophical divide, columnist Cal Thomas, in referring to Rachel Maddow, said she “is the best argument in favor of her parents using contraception. I would be all for that and all the rest of the crowd at MSNBC too for that matter.” (Thomas called Maddow afterward to apologize and also wrote a gracious and honest column doing the same.) And earlier today Rush Limbaugh, having issued an apology on Saturday for calling Georgetown University Law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute,” elaborated on that apology on his program, admitting the terms he used were wholly inappropriate and derogatory. (If Yglesias, Taibbi, and Heilemann have issued apologies for their comments, I’m not aware of them.)